If you love art, plants, animals, or history and want to share your passion with others, a career as a curator might be for you. These professionals work in various settings, including museums, botanical gardens, zoos, and important historical locations. A curator salary will vary by the geographical location, type of facility, and level of responsibility of the position. High-level curator positions are highly competitive and can be quite lucrative and prestigious. Preparation with education and practical experience is key for a career as a curator.
What Is the Average Curator Salary?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median curator salary in the United States was $52,140 per year as of May 2020. At the two extreme ends of the range, the bottom 10% earned less than $30,460, while the highest 10% earned more than $91,800. This data includes the salaries of museum workers, archivists, and curators of various types. The curators in this data sets work in education, government, historical sites, museums, and similar institutions. The highest salaries in the United States in 2020 were found in Alaska, California, the District of Columbia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.
The outlook for job prospects as a curator is promising. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the number of available positions will increase by 19% by 2030, a much faster rate than the average for all occupations. While some of the posts will be new, many will become available as people retire or move to another field. As the need to fill positions grows, you may see the average curator salary increase.
What Do Curators Do?
Curators’ duties, and the curator salary, vary depending on the facility in which they work. For example, in a museum, the curator may choose which items to display and decide how to design the exhibits to give visitors the best possible experience. A curator at a historic site may be responsible for protecting the property while making it available for visitors. Curators also do similar work in zoos, nature centers, and aquariums.
In many settings, curators also help with fundraising, marketing, and community education. They may have significant contact with community members as a guide and a source of information. In large institutions, curators may travel worldwide to view potential new additions to the collection and do research. Here are a few of the most common duties performed by curators:
- Setting up exhibits and displays in a way that helps visitors enjoy and understand the items
- Negotiating with sellers and donors to acquire new items for display in the facility
- Answering general questions from individuals about objects in their possession
- Planning lectures, special events, and educational opportunities to bring in visitors
- Writing grants or funding requests for foundations, government agencies, and individual donors
- Creating or directing marketing efforts to maintain a positive public image for the organization
- Managing and supervising staff members and volunteers
Because these duties require a broad range of skills, pursuing a curator salary and career requires formal, specialized education and versatile, practical skills.
How To Prepare for a Career as a Curator
To become a curator, you need a combination of advanced education in the field you want to work in and practical skills to help you apply that knowledge effectively. Most curator positions are considered management rather than entry-level, so you should expect to spend five to 10 years preparing for a lead curator role. Four to six of those years are usually spent gaining formal education. Those years of education should include externships, internships, and on-the-job experience in entry-level roles.
Most curator positions require a master’s degree at minimum. You usually need a doctorate to qualify for the highest curator salary in large institutions. Your area of interest will drive your degree decisions. For example, if your plan is to work as a curator at a historical site, you’ll likely seek a degree in archeology, ancient history, or something similar. Likewise, if you want to be a curator at a botanical garden, you’ll probably study plant science.
As you begin to look for schools at which to pursue your degree, you will likely find many options. Ask the admissions counselor at each school to share where their graduates are working. This strategy can give you an idea about whether the program can help you reach your goals. As you evaluate your options, look for these hallmarks of quality programs as you search for schools.
Look for a program closely related to the setting where you want to work. For example, a Bachelor of Fine Arts is a good choice for those who want to work in an art museum. If you hope to work in a botanical garden, you will want to pursue a bachelor’s degree related to plant science. Look for a program that requires at least one internship or externship as a requirement for graduation.
Many curators pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree to prepare for a career as a curator. However, if you seek employment in the natural sciences or history, a graduate degree in those fields is more appropriate. A master’s in business administration is another possibility if you prefer a course of study that gives you more flexibility. Like your undergraduate work, look for a graduate program that includes at least one internship or externship.
In addition to the work you do in the traditional classroom, you can augment your education by pursuing these other opportunities.
Most museums and similar institutions operate on small budgets with few paid employees. As a result, they usually welcome volunteers. While you won’t get paid in dollars, the value you add to your resume may be immeasurable. The experience and the opportunities to meet people who work in the field can pay off big later.
While the things you learn in the classroom are foundational, to earn a top curator salary, you also need practical experience. Most curators gain this on-the-job learning through internships, externships, work-study roles, and entry-level jobs in the desired field. Choosing academic programs with internship requirements is essential because these experiences give you hands-on training and exposure to professionals already working in the area. The best opportunities are those related to management or administration, even if they aren’t in the field you most desire. Broad experiences may prove even more valuable than something with a narrow focus because it gives you greater exposure.
Even as a student, you can benefit from joining a professional organization such as the Organization of American Historians or the Association of Art Museum Curators. These groups include influential people who can share valuable insight into the field and help you gain access to work and educational experiences.
Don’t discount the value of working in an entry-level role tangential to the role of curator. Two of those jobs are museum technicians and docents. In one of these positions, you may serve as a tour guide, manage collections, and help preserve items. All these tasks help you grow your knowledge, improve your communication abilities, and better understand the institution’s inner workings. While these roles earn less than a curator salary, assistant curator roles earned an average of $49,990 in 2020, respectable earnings by any measure, as you work your way up the career ladder.
Beyond the classroom studies, curators need other specific skills to earn the highest possible curator salary. The role of a curator includes many different kinds of tasks, but some abilities are helpful and necessary no matter where you work or what your job title is. Here are a few practical skills you will want to develop as you prepare for your career as a curator.
Interpersonal and Written Communication Skills
A curator in any setting must communicate clearly with visitors, coworkers, employees, and others involved in the institution’s day-to-day operation. The curator salary sometimes comes from or is supplemented by grants, and the curator may have a role in writing the competitive applications for those funds. In that case, written communication skills are an absolute necessity. Communication skills are also critically important in effectively marketing the institution to draw in visitors. Knowing how to describe exhibits and special events in a way that appeals to a broad audience will put you a step ahead of others with lesser communication abilities.
Business Management Skills
Even curators who manage large nonprofit institutions must operate the facility according to sound business practices. To earn the highest curator salary, these professionals need to understand business basics such as staff supervision, budgeting, and expense management. A basic level of accounting knowledge is helpful to give the curator the ability to read financial reports and understand costs and revenue. Business management skills also help the curator protect the facility from fraud, waste, or mismanagement.
Curators need a basic understanding of computers and software specific to their industry. As in other organizations, computer programs help curators keep track of inventory and manage finances. However, curators must also know how to use computers and the internet to perform extensive research into potential exhibits and events. Some curators may be responsible for updating websites, managing social media accounts, and creating marketing materials using graphic design tools.
Attention to Detail
Curators must closely examine works of art, historical artifacts, and other items for authenticity and condition, among other factors. Attention to detail is necessary for this type of work, especially if you want to earn the highest curator salary. The ability to focus on the small details allows you to effectively apply the knowledge learned in the classroom. Whether you are labeling plants and animals in a zoo or setting up a display of artifacts in a museum, understanding the fine details and articulating them to patrons sets you apart as a knowledgeable professional in the field.
Curators keep track of the ownership of items on loan to the institution and maintain detailed records on the things that belong to the organization directly. They also plan events, maintain exhibit calendars, make projections for the future, and handle various other projects. These responsibilities require a great deal of organization and time management skills. In the daily operation of a museum or similar business, the curator may also play a role in scheduling workers, processing regulatory reports, and managing volunteers. These areas require an organized thinker to set up the systems and keep them running efficiently.
Creative Thinking Skills
Curators need creative thinking ability in multiple job areas to earn the best curator salary. Setting up an exhibit or a display in the way that best appeals to visitors takes creativity, as does putting together a presentation for a potential donor. Curators who play a role in marketing need to think creatively when putting together materials, advertising, and more. With many curators working in small facilities with tight budgets, creative thinking can help professionals find ways to do more with fewer resources.
Successful curators who reach the highest levels in their careers are influential leaders at multiple levels. They know how to lead, guide, and encourage staff members, volunteers, board members, and other stakeholders. They also know how to direct successful projects such as fundraising campaigns and special events. Professionals who earn the highest curator salary are also leaders in the community who understand the importance of being involved in civic organizations, nonprofits, and other service institutions.
Pursuing a Competitive Curator Salary
Curators have rewarding and challenging jobs that require specialized knowledge gained from formal education and on-the-job experience. For those willing to pour the time and energy into a field they are passionate about, a curator salary can support a very comfortable lifestyle. People who are successful in the curator role tend to be enthusiastic about sharing their exhibits with others. They’re creative thinkers, persuasive communicators, and motivators for the people around them. If this sounds like a job you would enjoy, contact us to learn more about how to get started on your journey to a lucrative curator position.